Getting Started in Pennsylvania Genealogy Research

Following a research method and recording results helps prevent brick walls and assures that no record is missed. Here's four steps I follow for genealogy research.

Getting Started in Pennsylvania Genealogy Research

For many family historians, their first hint they have Pennsylvania ancestors is a notation on the census or a death certificate of “Birthplace: Penna.”

Their next step is searching on one of the major genealogy websites for birth records. However, it soon becomes clear that research in the Keystone state is quite confounding! There are not as many birth, marriage, and death records easily found as family historians assume would be. Many of the vital records remain unindexed and therefore are not returned through search. This book will cover in its chapters exactly where to find vital records and how to search them.

But first, knowing how Pennsylvania is organized and having a approach to research in the state can help you get started, or re-started, on solid footing.

  • Pennsylvania began in 1681 when William Penn received the charter for the land from England. It's first laws were issued in 1682.
  • There are sixty-seven counties in the state now, including the City of Philadelphia which was founded in 1854 from the boundaries of Philadelphia County. Some today say there are 66 counties plus the City of Philadelphia. The important part to remember is that both land and counties were added from 1682 to 1878. County boundary line changes are not covered in this book. See Appendix D:Additional Resources for Research for help with county boundary changes. 
  • Migration was difficult in a straight east–west direction across the state due to the Appalachian Mountains. There are also only a few rivers navigable by boat, but those run north–south. People migrating from the Philadelphia area typically went south to Maryland and Virginia, then north to get to the Pittsburgh area. Keep this in mind when tracing the movements of ancestors.
  • County records are essentials to vital records research and there is no central collection in the state of all county records. Pennsylvania's adjoining states of Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey have moved most of their county records to their state archives. Pennsylvania has not done so due to the volume of county records. Many county records have been microfilmed over the years by the Utah Genealogical Association (now FamilySearch) but no county has a complete collection microfilmed and available online. Each chapter in the book provides checklists of how to search for each record type both online and offline. AI holds promise of indexing all records on microfilm in the near future, but until that happens, the research approach in this book works.
  • Pennsylvania had, and continues to have, distinct regional differences: east to west, north to south, center to borders, and even county to county. Assuming people in one location kept the same records in the same way as people in another location can trip up researchers. Record-keeping practices are similar across each record type, but there are differences by location and ethnicity, particularly the farther back one goes. 
  • Pennsylvania ethnic diversity is astounding. AncestryDNA counts eighty distinct genetic communities across the state. To use your autosomal DNA results with your vital records research, see Chapter 2: Using DNA Results in Vital Records Research. If you have not done a DNA test through Ancestry, you do not need it. In most cases you can complete your research successfully without it. 

Knowing this history and structure of Pennsylvania and its records, let's cover an approach for genealogical research that combines the power of genealogical websites and methods to analysis.

Suggested Research Approach

As was mentioned, there is little success in using the main search box on any genealogy website to find all the records you need. This approach combines what is available online with some additional analysis on the researcher's part to find what is needed. There are four steps for successful genealogical research in Pennsylvania: